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School mask ruling sets off weekend scramble in Illinois school districts

 Collinsville School District 10 music teacher, Jennifer Bhooshan, teaches students at Webster Elementary school in October 2020. The Illinois State Board of Education voted Wednesday to require all student attendance days be in-person after many school districts shifted to remote learning because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Derik Holtmann
Belleville News-Democrat
Collinsville School District 10 music teacher, Jennifer Bhooshan, teaches students at Webster Elementary school in October 2020.

A Sangamon County judge’s ruling in a lawsuit over mask mandates in Illinois schools set off a weekend of scrambling and uncertainty as districts consulted lawyers, state education officials, and school board members in a flurry of online meetings.

The judge temporarily blocked Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s statewide masking mandate in nearly 170 school districts that were party to the lawsuit that hinges on whether local districts or the State Board of Education can decide whether to require masks be worn by students and staff. Pritzker and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul have asked for an expedited appeal.

The temporary restraining order applies to school districts named in the lawsuit, including Eureka #140, Prairie Central #8, Roanoke Benson #60, Morton #709, El Paso-Gridley #11, Mahomet-Seymour CUSD 3, Dunlap #323, Metamora Township High School, and Metamora Community Consolidated in central Illinois.

The impact on other districts is unclear. Districts including Lexington, Heyworth, LeRoy, El Paso-Gridley, and Mahomet-Seymour have already notified parents masks are voluntary.

"For those that weren't named (in the lawsuit), it is creating some uncertainty and a lot of consternation about which direction to go, at least in the short term," said Mark Jontry, the regional superintendent of schools for Dewitt, Livingston, Logan, and McLean counties. Jontry said he alone had been in five virtual meetings or multiparty phone calls on Sunday.

Jontry said there is a general belief that those who are not party to the lawsuit can probably continue to stay the course pending the appeal. That's what Unit 5 is doing. In a message to parents and students Sunday evening, Unit 5 said masks are still required.

"We have received several messages from parents on all sides of the issue, and we ask for your patience as we navigate this evolving situation. This issue is now being processed through the courts, which is where these types of legal decisions must be decided. In the meantime, our current rules regarding masking and close contact exclusion requirements will remain in place," Unit 5 told families.

Illinois State University Lab Schools (Thomas Metcalf and University High School) also said they will retain the mask requirement.

"What the districts really don't want to do is to be bouncing back and forth, between there is a mandate, and there isn't a mandate in terms of enforcement," said Jontry.

Communicating with parents

Families, meanwhile, waited to hear from school districts about their plans for Monday morning.

The Lexington school district "will change to a mask-optional policy for students and staff, cease exclusions of asymptomatic 'close contacts,' and cease mandatory vaccination or testing for staff," the district said on Facebook on Sunday night.

“In light of this order, the (Mahomet-Seymour) district is able to shift to masks being recommended but not required, which is what the Board of Education originally voted to do back in July of 2021,” wrote Mahomet-Seymour Superintendent Lindsay Hall. "We will be required to reassess the mask-optional policy if the ruling is stayed or reversed. We will be in communication if changes are required.”

"Masking will be recommended, but not required at (El Paso-Gridley) schools starting Monday, February 7, 2022," the EPG district said on Facebook.

District 87 issued a statement Saturday, saying it was reviewing the judge's order and then followed up with communication to parents saying they will "continue to follow the Governor's Executive Order for all students staff, and, visitors to wear masks while on school premises and on school buses."

Attorney Tom DeVore, who filed the lawsuit, said school systems that want to keep masking and testing requirements now are doing so at their own legal peril — even districts not part of his lawsuit.

“If they want to try to make children that aren’t named in this case wear a mask, they're breaking the law, according to this judge,” DeVore told WBEZ in Chicago.

Regional Superintendent Jontry said DeVore is not necessarily correct. He said specialists in education law believe there is ambiguity in the judge's ruling. She denied class action status to all public school districts in the state, but there was language that could be read to indicate masks are something that can't be enforced in any district.

"The attorneys are kind of like, 'Yeah, OK. That does create a level of uncertainty.’ And that's the core issue," said Jontry.

Unit 5 in Bloomington-Normal is not a party to the lawsuit. Unit 5 school board member Jeremy DeHaai has frequently spoken against the mask mandate and told WGLT before the ruling that he agrees with its core claim.

“That’s what I wish what we would be doing is a state is allow local control and make decisions as needed whether it’s masking, remote learning, whatever needs to be done, allow the local officials and the districts to make those decisions,” said DeHaai.

DeHaai said he does not believe mitigations should be immediately thrown out the window. He said his frustration is that there is no discussion of how districts will eventually get kids out of masks.

Teachers unions react

Friday's order distressed teachers’ unions.

“This decision has the potential to shut our schools down, effectively closing our school buildings and perhaps being potent enough to stop in person learning altogether," said Illinois Education Association President Kathi Griffin on the union website.

The IEA represents teachers in Bloomington District 87.

“Without those (public health) safety measures in place, we risk forcing thousands of teachers, education employees and students to be out sick or forced into quarantine,” said Griffin.

Griffin said the ruling has the potential to make an existing dire staff shortage even worse.

“The judge’s ruling calls into question the safety of schools across the state and we will support all efforts to stop its immediate implementation while state and district defendants pursue an appeal,” said Griffin.

And Regional Superintendent Mark Jontry said there is a big potential unintended consequence to the ruling for districts that lift mask mandates.

"Honestly, do they have to look at remote learning for a period of time, if they do not have enough staff that feel like they can come in person in in teach in that environment? That's one of the biggest considerations that's currently out there right now," said Jontry.

And Ben Matthews, IEA UniServ Director at the Bloomington office of the Illinois Education Association said the temporary restraining order reinforces that collectively bargained agreements still govern and are enforceable.

"As we move forward we will be reviewing any current agreements we have in place, engaging in conversations with district regarding their plans, and bargaining any decisions — or the impact of such decisions — as appropriate," said Matthews, who is based in Bloomington.

Mark Jontry said there are implications for extracurricular activities and athletic contests as well. Jontry said the presumption is that the mask or no-mask rules that apply will be controlled by the home district in each inter-school event. He said it is possible districts that adhere to mask mandates would cancel events with districts that are no-mask or mask-optional and districts will be closely watching that situation.

"I don't know that they've gotten that far down the road yet. They're trying to work through this immediate issue. Monday morning is the Illinois High School Association's (IHSA) regularly scheduled monthly board meeting. It's going to be a topic of discussion at that board meeting. It'll be interesting to see what if any guidance comes out from IHSA and or if they get any more clarity on any changes that may occur from IDPH relative to the current guidance that IHSA is disseminating to schools," said Jontry.

Jontry said regardless of what happens the ruling will encourage further legal challenges by districts that have so far not contested Illinois State Board of Education policy.

Jontry did not foresee broader challenges to Illinois State Board of Education policy that are not related to the pandemic, by school districts arguing for local control. He said the language in the suit centers on the use of Pritzker's executive orders.

"That's where the frustration is. It's time for General Assembly to get involved," said Jontry. "What should the General Assembly potentially look to more significantly codify around policies and procedures when it comes to dealing with pandemic issues?"

Indeed, the judge in her ruling based part of her decision on the restraining order on the fact that lawmakers have had multiple opportunities to act and have not done so, thereby increasing the legitimacy of challenges to the Governor's executive orders.

As of mid-afternoon Sunday, Unit 5 and District 87 were in a series of meetings to discuss the issue.

The dispute serves as another example of a society riven by public policy approaches to the pandemic, one echoed in responses to WGLT social media requests for comment from parents about mask issues. Two thirds of 50 responses were in favor of continuing mask requirements and one third expressed feelings that masks were not useful, or that local districts should have the authority to decide policy for their own students.

Copyright 2022 WGLT

Charlie Schlenker